Nicola Walsh writes on skills that must be learnt to become good leaders

More often than not, good leaders are great people – and it’s often lonely up there! Chicken Licken was a leader
who persuaded others to follow. However, her vision wasn’t shared and nor was it clear, and she led her team into the fox’s den. So make sure you know where you’re going at the outset… then motivate others to follow.

People taking up leadership roles at the beginning of the year need to have a clear vision of what they want to achieve beyond the next 365 days. They should invest time to review what’s already in place before making any changes – because as it may transpire, they may not need to make any changes at all.

Becoming an effective leader is a major challenge; it means that someone has recognised that you have the capacity to lead. Don’t ever forget that. Be wary. You will receive heaps of advice and the trick is to listen to all of it but rely on your instincts. That’s why you’ve secured the role – because someone believes that you (and not necessarily those around you) have the ability to lead.

However, you will need to actively seek the views of all those around you. So request feedback from all team members and not only those who appear the keenest to offer it. They will appreciate your gesture. So listen carefully.

Never believe that you know it all. Actively show that you are learning too. As a school principal in Sri Lanka, I learnt to wear a sari and wore it regularly. As a Westerner, my skills in draping the sari caused a great deal of mirth among my col ­leagues. But I also had many offers of help to improve my draping skills… and my teachers taught me. It became a reciprocal relationship. So be humble – show what you don’t know and be willing to learn from those around you.

Build a strong team by employing people who may know more than you. Show others that you rely on their experience and knowledge to help you make tough decisions. I regularly see long serving school leaders appointing much younger and inexperienced staff, as they’re fearful of conflict. This is a real shame for the school as it weakens the institution’s capacity to improve through healthy challenge and debate.

Experienced and critically evaluating staff with a passion who wish to see the organisation improve is what your team needs. The late father of advertising David Ogilvy once noted: “If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarves; but if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.”

Remember that as the person at the top, you ultimately hold the reins; but don’t use the power of authority to get your way. Exerting power over others is no longer the way to lead.

I’ve seen leaders frequently intimidate staff with dire conse­quences for underperformance. But that’s not the way to develop high performers who believe in a shared vision and are committed to the long haul. Where there’s underperformance, seek the reasons for it and address them. That way your team will remain committed, feel supported and won’t be working in a climate of fear.

Once you recognise the capabilities of others, enable them to use their skills. Howard Schulz transformed Starbucks in the 1980s by believing that “people want guidance, not rhetoric. They need to know what the plan of action is and how it will be implemented. They want to be given responsi­bility to help solve the problem and the authority to act upon it.”

Schulz created an organisation where people’s contributions were seen as potential solutions to the problems and not the problem.

Poorly motivated and uninspired people can be the downfall of even the most amazing companies. Leadership is the key when empowering individuals to acquire the knowledge, skills, desire and opportunity to personally succeed in a way that leads to collective organisational success.

Being able to develop a team of people who devote their efforts entirely to the cooperative effort of the team is a highly valued skill. So be prepared to tread the boards and learn by being a positive team player.

Don’t rush into leadership too soon. How can you expect others to be responsive to your observations if they don’t believe you can do it too? Many professionals rise to the top in next to no time and admonish others for underperformance – but they haven’t a clue about how to do it themselves.

Ensure that your experience is relevant and use it to lead the team. Lead with a shared vision of where you want to go and empower others to help you. You’re all on the same journey. They’re the drivers too so be prepared to share the wheel.